A new department in Harris County set to launch in March will seek to bring equity to economic opportunity countywide. The initiative comes after county officials made equity a focus of other spending discussions, including mobility, flood control and public health.

The Harris County Department of Equity and Economic Opportunity is a culmination of two years of research, community input and stakeholder meetings, said Sasha Legette, a member of the Harris County Precinct 1 policy team that helped get the project off the ground.

Long term, officials said they hope to develop policies and programs to help business owners, workers and job seekers. In its first year, the focus will fall on the county’s own contracting process.

“We’re hoping to see a more proactive engagement and innovative policies and programs to address economic disparities and cure historic disinvestment,” Legette said.

Two additional studies are also underway this year—one in transportation and one in public health—that are meant to further guide on how equity can be incorporated into those areas.

Entrenched discrimination

In 2018, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a study into disparities in how the county selects firms to contract with on projects. Conducted by the consulting firm Colette Holt & Associates, the study showed the county could be passive in marketplace discrimination.

The study examined 478 contracts worth about $1.26 billion, including 1,433 subcontracts worth about $280.49 million, the county approved between 2015 and the first quarter of 2019. Although about 71.6% of businesses in the market for county contracts are “non-M/WBEs”—a term referring to businesses not owned by a minority or woman—about 90.9% of contracting dollars went to those firms.

Only 9.1% of county dollars went to minority and women businesses, including only 0.5% to Black-owned businesses, the study found. This yielded a disparity ratio—which measures how often the county contracts with those businesses divided by their availability—of 32%, according to the study.

“A very lower ratio suggests entrenched discriminatory barriers,” lead researcher Colette Holt said. “Thirty-two percent is very, very low.”

Linda Morales, an organizing coordinator with the Texas Gulf Coast AFLCIO, said the group wants to ensure these communities are prospects for good jobs that offer upward mobility and fair pay. The group was a stakeholder in creating the department.

An estimated 64 disadvantaged businesses, 152 minority-owned businesses and 81 women-owned businesses operate across the Spring and Klein area’s nine ZIP codes. The data, which comes from a city of Houston directory, includes firms that could benefit from the new county initiative, including construction, engineering and consulting.

Bobby Lieb, president and CEO of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce, urged business owners to learn how to properly bid on government projects through the U.S. Small Business Administration to avoid getting in over their heads.

“Bidding on government contracts is a whole different animal, and if a business is not in the practice of doing work for the government, if not executed properly [it] could negatively impact their regular business operations,” he said.

Economic, physical health

Efforts to improve economic opportunity in disadvantaged communities can have direct effects on physical health as well, said Heidi McPherson, the senior community health director with the American Heart Association in Houston. McPherson said raising incomes and promoting career development align with the AHA mission of ending chronic disease, as better jobs mean better access to health care.

Life expectancies across Harris County vary, with more socially vulnerable areas in the 65-69 range and wealthier areas in the 85 and older range, according to a 2020 study by the Harris County Public Health Department. Central areas of Spring and Klein, where social vulnerability is lower, have a life expectancy of 80-84 years, while the areas near FM 1960 and I-45 have a life expectancy of 75-79 years.

Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the CEO of Harris Health System, said an updated report will be provided to Harris County commissioners in March. County officials also want to expand services in high-need areas, he said.

“Are we in the right places? Are there opportunities in some of the geographies where we should be but currently are not?” he said.

McPherson said communities have different needs, ranging from healthy food to access to purified drinking water and hike and bike trails.

“It feels like collectively across the Greater Houston area, we really do have the opportunity to lead the nation,” she said.

Hannah Zedaker contributed to this report.